While the nation waited to hear who would be nominated for prime minister, nine Dartmoor Preservation Association conservation volunteers, with Jenny Plackett from Butterfly Conservation, worked peacefully on Common Wood, my common near Horndon on western Dartmoor.
We walked there from Hillbridge, along the leat. We started with an explanation from Jenny . We are aiming to create a better habitat for Pearl-bordered, and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies, by removing gorse and brambles which prevent the growth of violets (the foodplant of the larvae) and of nectar plants such as betony and bugle (the adults’ food). We need to leave bracken to protect the plants, and to provide a mosaic of habitats.
The dead bracken litter is important to create a warm microclimate for the feeding fritillary caterpillars in the spring. The warm temperature created by the dry bracken material helps speed up larval development. This is particularly crucial for the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, which needs to develop quickly in the early spring, when the ambient temperature can be very cool.
Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries have not been seen here for many years, so we really hope to make it attractive to them. We began by tackling the large gorse bushes which are spreading across the hillside.
Some of us made tracks through the bracken down to the leat, where we built up the windrow (live hedge) from previous years. This made it easier to drag the branches of gorse down the hill to stack on the windrow.
Jenny came with forkloads of bracken, reminding me of a photo from the Open Spaces Society’s lantern-slide collection of a man in 1926 carrying bracken on Walton Heath common in Surrey.
We stopped for lunch and a chat. It was a warm day but the occasional drifts of fieldfares reminded us that it was autumn.
Then we resumed gorse cutting and building up the windrow.
I walked up to the top of the common, where I could look across the Tavy valley towards White Tor. We are hoping that ponies, which are kept in neighbouring fields, will in due course graze the common. However, I saw that there was a bank of bracken which could deter them from coming down the hill and doing useful work breaking up the vegetation.
So some of us slashed tracks through the bracken to make it more penetrable.
By mid-afternoon we had made a significant difference, both in reducing the amount of gorse, and creating tracks.
As we packed up we learnt that Rishi Sunak would be the new prime minister. It seemed like another world. We headed back along the leat to Hillbridge for tea with my friend Marion Saunders at the Old School House. We hope to be back in February.
Thank you volunteers!